Hong Kong chief executive hopeful John Tsang leads the social media race

Beijing’s apparent favourite, Carrie Lam, has yet to decide whether to open a Facebook account; Regina Ip and Woo Kwok-hing are already making posts

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 January, 2017, 7:55pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 February, 2017, 9:29am

John Tsang Chun-wah has relied on social media more frequently than his rivals did in the race for the city’s top job, a strategy seen as crucial for maintaining his popularity in a bid to block Beijing’s apparent backing for a key rival.

The former financial secretary has released 32 Facebook posts since he announced his election bid on January 19, or 2.7 posts per day.

That compares with 2.1 posts per day for retired High Court judge Woo Kwok-hing and 1.8 posts per day for Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, chairwoman of the New People’s Party. Both are also in the running for the top job.

Hong Kong top job candidates wish city ‘unity’ and ‘prosperity’ Lunar New Year

Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, the former chief secretary who is seen as the favourite,is still considering whether and when to open a Facebook account, according to her election aides.

But what has made Lam stand out is not only her apparent backing by the central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong or her unwillingness to take to social media. Since throwing her hat in the ring last month, she has faced more PR crises than the other three hopefuls.

She was filmed looking clueless in front of an MTR turnstile with her Octopus card until her assistant reminded her: “You can go now.”

Her anecdote about not finding toilet rolls in convenience stores and having to take a taxi back to her former official residence on The Peak in the middle of the night made headlines in several British media outlets, including the BBC.

Her election website has no English version except a legal disclaimer carrying multiple grammatical errors like “we accepts” and “miss-representation” that were later corrected.

Right before the Lunar New Year and in front of the cameras, she gave a HK$500 note to a beggar knowing she was not a Hongkonger, but was from the mainland. Infuriated by her generosity, internet userssaid Lam’s offer of money made the woman commit a crime involving begging, a claim supported by Woo.

“The problem with Lam is her rather strange and bad handling which gives people the impression that she is nothing but a laughing stock,” said Alfred Cheung Kin-ting, who served as speech trainer for past chief executive contenders Henry Tang Ying-yen and Alan Leong Kah-kit.

“She would now be considered an embarrassment for Hongkongers, to some,” he added.

Her refusal to create a Facebook page has prompted opponents to run an “unofficial Carrie Lam” campaign page on a social media platform, highlighting her every misstep to mock the candidate. “I’ve finally learned how to use an Octopus card!” one of the posts read.

Observers say the PR teams behind Lam and Tsang may explain their different approaches to engagement.

Lam, 59, is surrounded by a PR team consisting of people of her generation, occupying managerial jobs in private corporations or public institutions but lacking recent experience in dealing with frontline journalists and ordinary people.

They include retired deputy head of RTHK Tai Keen-man, Jockey Club public affairs executive manager Albert Chan and Sandra Mak Wong Siu-chun, CEO of A-World Consulting, who used to helm the public relations unit at electricity giant CLP Group.

Unlike Lam, who relies mainly on the business sector to support her PR campaign, Tsang focuses on his old colleagues in the government who had experience dealing with the media on his behalf.

He delegated his Facebook account to his trusted aide, former Ming Pao editor Julian Law Wing-chung who served as Tsang’s political assistant when he was finance chief.

Recent polls show Hongkongers generally favour Tsang in the race, butaccept that Lam stands a better chance of winning Beijing’s blessing and thus the election.

Wang Guangya, the Beijing official in charge of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office under the State Council, listed four criteria for the next chief executive, with “Hongkongers’ backing” coming last, following “loving China and Hong Kong”, “governance capability” and “the trust of the central government”.

Cheung, the PR strategist, said the chief executive candidates could highlight their willingness to undo unpopular policies to show their governance ability and to win Hongkongers’ favour.

Last week, Tsang became the first contender to vow to abolish the widely unpopular Territory-wide System Assessment for Primary 3 schoolchildren.

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, an underdog in the race, hinted she would no longer keep unpopular education minister Eddie Ng Hak-kim.

“Despite Lam’s impetus, she could still face uncertainty, with polls being one of the key factors,” said Ivan Choy Chi-keung, a political scientist at Chinese University.

Choy said her popularity could drop further if “Sai Wan” – a reference to the location of Beijing’s liaison office – continued its bid to drive up support for her among election committee members.